Why Do People Hoard?

The “why” question is the big one. This is going to be a three-post answer. And even at that, we won’t know all the reasons why people hoard. There’s so much we don’t know about hoarding disorder, so much research that needs to be done in so many directions including neuroscience, behaviors, and how spirituality impacts and is impacted by hoarding. (I had an amazing answer from a client to the question I put to her, “What happens to your spirit, your sense of spirituality, when you hoard?” She said, “My spirituality is completely separated from me when I hoard.” I wished I could have quit everything else to further explore that. She was so clear and certain about her experience.)

Over the next three posts, I want to look at the bio-psycho-social perspective related to the causes of hoarding behaviors. I don’t believe there are only biological, psychological, and social reasons that people hoard, but these are the areas that we have some research background to give us a beginning understanding.

Let’s look at the big picture first – the systemic picture. Whatever else we say, we need to understand that the person who hoards affects the systems they are in, and the systems they are in affect the person who hoards. We all live in systems: families, communities, countries, the environment. We cannot take the person who hoards out of their systems, fix them, then put them back in their systems. We have to look at how that bi-directionality shows up in the life of the person who hoards.

Another system that the person who hoards lives within is that of co-occurring disorders. For up to 92% of people who hoard, there are other mental health and medical health disorders they have been diagnosed (or perhaps not) with that interact with the hoarding disorder. Some of those diagnoses are PTSD, anxiety and depression, eating disorders, ADHD, and others. If a person has more than one mental health diagnosis, any treatment plan needs to take into consideration those diagnoses, how they interact with each other, how they are treated, how treating one will affect the other, and so on.

So understanding the systemic approach, now let’s look at social causes that contribute to hoarding. I’ve mentioned in other posts the issue of stigma and cultural understandings (and misunderstandings) around hoarding disorder. Reality TV has shaped a lot of our societal thoughts from a negative perspective. The stigma and misunderstandings contribute to feelings of shame in people who hoard and their family members. It’s easier to stay quiet about a loved one’s hoarding than to seek support. A colleague of mine whose father hoarded all his life told me it took her years to finally tell trusted women friends who she walked with once a week for over a decade because of the shame she felt. (When she did finally tell them, they couldn’t have reacted better. She wondered why she took so long and held this secret to herself.)

Major life events and transitions – especially those that are difficult or tragic – can impact an individual’s willingness to share with their network. Hoarding behaviors can begin out of these events. I said to a group of family members that often people who start hoarding later in life do so because of some difficulty – they began telling stories of what they had noticed: when Dad died, when my parents divorced, when we left Mom an empty-nester, etc.

There is some good news when we talk about social causes and impacts on hoarding. Research has shown that there is a connection with positive family support and lessened hoarding. As well, a negative family interaction and lack of support can heighten hoarding behaviors. Another reason for family members and friends to support their loved ones – it may lower their hoarding behaviors.

Janet Yeats is a marriage and family therapist and writer who specializes in issues of trauma, grief and loss. Janet consults, speaks and writes on hoarding disorder as well as other trauma and loss-related topics. Visit her youtube channel (Janet Yeats) to see videos and webinars on these topics.

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